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The Consistent Ethic of Life

Click here for list of posted speeches of Cardinal Bernardin

The "consistent ethic of life" is a critically important but widely misunderstood teaching. Though he did not invent it, the late Joseph Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago was the most visible proponent of this teaching, often popularly referred to as the "seamless garment" philosophy.

Cardinal Bernardin began his public reflections on this theme in the context of the work he did on the US Bishops' pastoral letter The Challenge of Peace, and of his position as Chairman of the Pro-life Committee of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. He saw that in order to effectively articulate the Christian response to a wide range of menacing threats to human life, brought about by a new kind of interconnection between the forces of destruction made possible by modern technologies, it was necessary to highlight the interconnection of the many and varied efforts to defend human life. He noted that progress in the defense and protection of life in one arena meant progress for the defense of life in all arenas.

The Cardinal went out of his way, however, to counteract two misunderstandings of the consistent ethic, misunderstandings, unfortunately, which are still widespread today. Here I will briefly mention those misunderstandings, and then provide links to the words of the Cardinal himself, as they are contained in the speeches he gave which we have posted on this website.

Misunderstanding One: The Consistent Ethic equates all moral issues related to the sanctity of life. Some object to the idea of the consistent ethic because they interpret "consistency" to mean "of equal importance or urgency." That is not what it means. What links the many issues of human life is that such life is sacred: it comes from God, it belongs to God, it returns to God. All human beings have equal dignity, and nobody may ever directly destroy the innocent. These principles apply whether we are talking about abortion, capital punishment, war, poverty, drug abuse, street violence, or any other of the multitude of problems we face in society.

But that does not mean that these issues are morally equivalent. Each issue, along with the overall principles which we have already stated, has its own particular principles and moral considerations which need to be brought into the discussions whenever one treats of that particular issue. These particularities could conceivably result in divergent opinions about what specific policies should be implemented, while at the same time those who disagree acknowledge the same essential principles.

Nor do all of these issues constitute an emergency of equal gravity and urgency. Some do more damage and claim more victims than others.

The Cardinal's remarks on this point can be found in the following places:

Gannon lecture

Wade lecture reference 1

Wade lecture reference 2

Wade lecture reference 3

Wade lecture reference 4

Wade lecture reference 5

Cincinnati lecture reference 1

Cincinnati lecture reference 2

Loyola lecture reference 1

Loyola lecture reference 2

Loyola lecture reference 3

Seattle lecture reference 1

Seattle lecture reference 2

Seattle lecture reference 3

Seattle lecture reference 4

Seattle lecture reference 5

Jamaica lecture reference 1

Jamaica lecture reference 2

Jamaica lecture reference 3

Portland lecture reference 1

Portland lecture reference 2

Portland lecture reference 3

Misunderstanding Two: The Consistent Ethic requires people who address one issue to likewise address a multitude of others. This misunderstanding often causes people to criticize those whose individual or group ministry focuses on a specific issue exclusively. It paints such a focus in terms of being "unconcerned about other issues."

This, of course, is rather unfair in at least two ways. First of all it tends to judge people, based on what they are doing, about their attitudes on other issues. It is somewhat like accusing the Alcoholics Anonymous movement of not doing anything about the arms race. I cannot judge what those who run AA programs do or do not think about nuclear weapons. For all I know, they may be just as concerned about it as I am. That doesn't mean they are not free to dedicate themselves to the ministry to which they are called.

The second way in which this misunderstanding becomes unfair is that it can tend to expect the impossible, and expect people and groups to use their already limited time and resources to address any number of issues, any one of which could easily require a lifetime of effort. We are many, though one Body. Each person and group has his or her own charism and gifts, to be used to build up the Body in a particular fashion. It is the Church as a whole which needs to be actively addressing every problem that the human family faces. But to expect each person and group to do so contradicts common sense.

Yet there is a truth here which must be stressed: no person or group is free to be unconcerned about all the attacks on human dignity, nor are we free to ignore the interdependence of all the efforts on behalf of human life. there are numerous activities being carried out in defense of human dignity. There is not be room for all of them on our schedule, but we must make room for all of them in our heart.

The Cardinal's remarks on this point may be found in the following places:

Wade lecture reference 1

Wade lecture reference 2

Wade lecture reference 3

Wade lecture reference 4

Wade lecture reference 5

Wade lecture reference 6

Wade lecture reference 7

Kansas City lecture reference 1

Kansas City lecture reference 2

Cincinnati lecture reference 1

Loyola lecture reference 1

Seattle lecture reference 1

Seattle lecture reference 2

Seattle lecture reference 3

Jamaica lecture reference 1

Portland lecture reference 1

Portland lecture reference 2

Teachings of the Magisterium on Abortion

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